Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin may have dodged a potential no-confidence vote in a truncated session of parliament on Monday, but his position remains shaky as he appeases factions of his new political alliance and fields challenges from his former allies, analysts said.
The two-hour session, the first parliamentary sitting since the change of government at the end of February, featured only a speech by Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah and no deliberations.
“The honorable members (of parliament) should always show maturity in politics. This includes understanding the people’s grievances, championing their plight, holding to principles of justice, practicing a clean political culture, and refraining from harping on religious and racial sensitivities as well as the sovereignty and position of the Malay rulers,” the king said.
Government officials said the session was shortened to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus, but it also meant that a proposed motion for a no-confidence vote against Muhyiddin could not be held.
The king named Muhyiddin as Malaysia’s new prime minister on Feb. 29 after a ruling coalition headed by Mahathir Mohamad unraveled and he resigned.
Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani, a political science professor at Universiti Utara Malaysia, said if parliament had not convened, it would have been “dissolved automatically,” but the COVID-19 pandemic created a justification to shorten the sitting.
“Muhyiddin’s hold on power is extremely fragile, that’s why he has to placate all the noise in his hastily cobbled coalition with various appointments and political largesse,” Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, told BenarNews.
Not only does Muhyiddin have a wafer-thin majority over the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition, he now has to contend with an ambitious United Malays National Organization party, Oh said. UMNO, a key partner in Muhyiddin’s governing alliance, dominated Malaysian politics for decades before it was defeated in the 2018 general election.
“Muhyiddin would like to avoid embarrassment by any show of no-confidence at this point. But he is just kicking the ball down the road because as time passes, UMNO could become increasingly emboldened in challenging him, even publicly,” Oh said.
Mahathir, who had proposed no-confidence vote, told reporters after the session that the current government had a “very slim majority.”
“If two or three of them (MPs) switch from a party to another, from the government to the opposition, then this government would fall. It’s not like before, where the government had a two-thirds majority. Now only a few,” Mahathir said.
“So, we believe that if we can expose the wrongdoings of the government, good sense will prevail and there would be some from the government side who will support the motion,” Mahathir said.
Another lawmaker echoed Mahathir’s remarks.
“Delaying the parliament sitting from the 9th of March to 18th of May was meant to give him (Muhyiddin) time to ‘buy’ enough MPs to form a comfortable majority. That objective has clearly failed,” Liew Chin Tong, an MP from the opposition Democratic Action party (DAP), wrote in his official blog.
“The Muhyiddin government is now afraid of calling parliament,” Liew said.
UMNO ‘making noises’
Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional coalition includes UMNO, the Islamist Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) and a faction of the Bersatu Party, which was co-founded by Mahathir and Muhyiddin.
Muhyiddin is also supported by Azmin Ali, the International Trade and Industry minister and former deputy president of People’s Justice Party (PKR), the largest component party in the recently ousted Pakatan Harapan government.
Azmin brought over several MPs when he defected to give Muhyiddin the crucial number of supporters. Muhyiddin is backed by at least 114 MPs, according to Malaysian media, two more than the 112 – one more than half of the 222-member parliament – needed to lead the government.
UMNO has become the most dominant party in the new ruling bloc, according to Oh, the analyst.
“Both Zahid Hamidi (the UMNO president) and many UMNO warlords are understandably less than thrilled about playing third fiddle to Muhyiddin and Azmin, and they are making noises and creating antics to shake the tree a bit, hopefully keeping the ruling coalition in place, but replacing Muhyiddin and Azmin in the process,” Oh said.
Zahid sees himself as an “obvious PM,” Oh said while warning that others in UMNO “could be equally ambitious too.”
“As the pandemic situation subsides, you will see the racially supremacist and or religiously extremist elements in UMNO and PAS making a re-emergence and resurgence, such that they could keep their religious-racist agenda alive and well going forward, in time for the next general election, such that they still retain the votes of the overwhelming majority of Malays,” Oh said.
In his view, the Bersatu party, split between Muhyiddin and Mahathir, is expected to lose its relevance.
“I think Bersatu will become increasingly irrelevant without Mahathir as even just a figurehead as its political positions are increasingly being chipped away by UMNO and PAS,” Oh said.
Azizuddin, the professor of political science, said it was difficult to determine Muhyiddin’s hold on power, describing him as a leader who is “never controversial.”
“But not many dispute the thought that he deserves the premiership. He is even older than Anwar Ibrahim,” Azizuddin told BenarNews, adding that many voters from the Malay majority welcomed the change of government in March.
In addition, some voters from the ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, particularly those who felt they were not “helped” during Pakatan’s administration, support Muhyiddin, Azizuddin said.
“The way he maneuvers in politics, I would say that he is smart in political strategies. Don’t underestimate Muhyiddin,” Azizuddin said.
Khalid Jaafar, an adviser to Azmin Ali, dismissed criticism leveled against Muhyiddin by former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who served as UMNO president.
“Najib and others can say what they want. People are looking at what’s Muhyiddin is doing. He will survive until GE15,” Khalid told BenarNews, referring to the general election expected in 2023.
“His (Muhyiddin’s) approval rating is very high, (for) managing COVID-19 where he has been decisive. He is also decisive in restarting the economy,” Khalid said.